What does $40 USD get you in today’s consumer electronics world? How about a decent USB flash drive? How about a cheap portable DVD player? While neither may interest you all that much, Creative is betting their recently released Zen Stone portable audio player will grab your eye and wallet. This no-frills MP3 player is set to compete against the more expensive Apple iPod Shuffle. Does Creative’s pretty new skipping-stone-of-a-player have the budget muscle to take down the shuffle? Read on to find out.
Design and Aesthetics
The Creative Zen Stone is designed to look like…well, a skipping stone. It is compact in size measuring 2-1/10” x 1-2/5” x 0.5”, and weighs a mere 0.5 ounces. It is rectangular in design, with smooth round edges. The black unit we reviewed (other color choices include white, red, blue, pink, and green) has a slightly glossy finish which seems to show fingerprints smudges very easily.
The general layout of controls on the Zen Stone seems to be well thought out. The front side of the player houses a four-way control circle which lets you manage volume as well as track selection. Central to this control is a play/pause button, which doubles as the on/off switch. All of these buttons offer a solid tactile response as you push them, with no lag time or feeling like the player didn’t get issued the appropriate operating command.
Running along the top of the Zen Stone, you’ll find a three-way switch for skipping from one stored music folder to another as well as options for repeating or shuffling music. There’s also a small reset button and headphone jack. On the bottom side, you’ll find a mini-USB port, used to connect an included, somewhat short, cable to your PC for charging and file copying.
Returning to the front of the player, you’ll find also an LED. This light blinks to let you know, among other things, when the battery needs charging, when you are playing music, and when it’s reading freshly imported music files. It blinks a lot, actually, making use of three colors that each has their own corresponding multiple blink patterns. You’ll want to quickly get to know what each color/blink pattern combo means so you don’t run out of battery juice while enjoying your tunes.
One notably absent feature of the Creative Zen Stone is a built-in clip. This standard feature of the iPod shuffle is a nice touch, and it would have been pleasant to see it in Creative’s offering as well. There is, however, an integrated lanyard hole, though Creative fails to supply a lanyard in your packaging. What were they thinking?
Image Courtesy of Creative
Features and Use
Priced as a budget MP3 player, the Zen Stone plays music quite well. Even at high volumes, the music did not sound distorted. This is nice, considering that many inexpensive players sound as cheap as their price tag. One area in which Creative did drop the ball, however, is the earbuds. Though they are of solid construction, they quickly became uncomfortable in my ears and needed to be removed. You are well advised to use your own earbuds — a common issue for most portable audio players on the market these days.
With its 1GB of flash memory and no expansion card options, the Zen Stone is rated to store 250 MP3s encoded at 128kbps. It is also capable of storing WMA music files, including those which fit the Windows Media DRM 9 protected format. It is not PlaysForSure compatible, though, meaning you won’t be able to enjoy subscription music content from some online music services. It can, however, play back Audiobooks downloaded from Audible.
Since the Creative Zen Stone lacks a display screen, you’ll need to manage music files (and other data files as well, since the Stone doubles as a USB mass storage device) through your Windows computer. You can do this in one of three ways: drag and drop through a folder window, Windows Media Player, or Creative Media Lite. This last option is free software that must be downloaded from the Creative Web site — annoyingly, no CD is included with which to install this software or the detailed user guide (this also must be downloaded). While I understand that it’s a budget player and all, it would still be helpful to have the software at least on the player so I can drag and drop it to my computer.
Transferring a CD’s worth of music to the Creative Zen Stone through Windows Media Player 11 took about 1 min, 20 seconds for 55MB of music files — respectable over a USB 2.0 connection. While I can see using WMP for this type of process, you definitely miss out on a few features by not using Creative Media Lite. These include setting a volume limit, downloads of firmware updates (though you can do this manually through Creative’s website), and a simpler way for safely disconnecting your USB player from the PC.
The default way to charge the battery on the Stone is through the mini-USB port. Sadly, I could not play music from the player while charging it. Once fully charged, the player did get over nine hours of playback, which is mostly in line with the 10 hours advertised by Creative.
Digging into the playback style of the Creative Zen Stone for a moment, you’ll find the player is designed to play music in alphanumeric order. To this end — unless you set your music in order exactly as you wish the player to play it back— you will want to make sure each album is in its own labeled folder. This folder idea seems to be important to Creative, since they’ve built a skip folder control directly on the Stone’s body. You can create up to three levels of folders from the root, and if the Zen Stone finds tracks and folders in the same location it will play back the tracks first.
With a $40 USD price tag, the Creative Zen Stone is a pretty bare MP3 player. Those looking for digital audio players with advanced features like audio enhancement and OGG support will definitely want to look elsewhere, as will those who desire a OSD (on screen display) to control their entertainment experience. However, if you can get by these factors and don’t mind some minor annoyances like fingerprint smudges and lack of included software/advanced user manual, you’ll probably find the Stone to your liking. This player will serve especially well for those on a limited budget or those who desire something simple they can just slip into their pocket with minimal operating needs.
• Quality sound for a budget player
• USB mass storage
• Easy to use
• Lack of included software or advanced user guide
• Unable to play music while charging
• Included earbuds are uncomfortable